Great Character

Kerry Ehrin, showrunner for Apple TV+’s flagship series The Morning Show, navigates the uncharted waters of writing a TV show during a pandemic with a combination of empathetic cool and an abiding knack for great characters.

©2020 Apple
Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston in The Morning Show.
May 29, 2020 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Kerry Ehrin

“Running shows, there are plenty of times when you go home and you cry because you’re just exhausted. It’s a lot. You are always on, you’re always putting out.”

Showrunner Kerry Ehrin was diving into the second season of the lauded Apple TV+ series The Morning Show when the world tipped on its axis. The COVID-19 pandemic forced her to take her writers’ room remote and find a way forward. Though she would likely blanch at the suggestion, Ehrin is exactly who you’d want at the tiller in a crisis. She’s calm, sage, and no-B.S. but never without empathy or humor.

“We’re waiting and hoping we make it, like everyone else,” she says in an even tone absent of any hint of melodrama. “It’s terrifying, but what are you going to do?”

From the start of her career on the inventive ‘80s smash Moonlighting through other hits like The Wonder Years and Friday Night Lights, Ehrin has helped make hugely popular shows known for great writing. Despite coming up as a TV writer during a decidedly male-dominated, often overtly sexist time, she didn’t just survive, she thrived in a way few women could. When she was brought on by fledgling streaming powerhouse Apple TV+ to take over the show’s development, the stakes were high enough to even rattle a pro. But added to that was the pressure of having big stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon both creatively involved as executive producers.

Inspired by Brian Stelter’s book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, the series originally centered around the ugly politics of morning news shows. But then the #MeToo movement dawned, along with the firing of morning news superstar Matt Lauer over accusations of sexual misconduct. Ehrin immediately understood the themes surrounding #MeToo shouldn’t just be a new component of the story, they should be the story. Season one begins when beloved Morning Show host Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) gets canned for sexual harassment, leaving his on-air partner of 15 years, Alex Levy (Aniston), to navigate the fallout. The story that unfolds is not monochromatic or dogmatic but deftly surprising and fundamentally rooted in compelling characters with nuance and heart as well as ugly flaws.

Ehrin spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about helming Apple TV+’s first big series, what if any effect the pandemic has had on the show’s story lines, and why, from the time she started concocting stories with her sister as a young girl, writing has always been about great characters.

You’ve described coming on to run this show as jumping on a moving train, but you immediately had the narrative insight to see that the #MeToo movement shouldn’t just be an added component of the story, it was the story.

Yeah.

Do you feel that was the switch that needed to be flipped for the series to come together?

Well, it certainly was for me, to be the person who was going to write it, yes, because it was such an intriguing scenario to talk about. In particular, I'm drawn to write about really fucked-up relationships, you know? Dysfunctional, codependent, but also told with some humor and love in them. There were aspects of that central relationship that was so horrifying between Mitch and Alex, who were on-air partners for 15 years.

It was really interesting because, so often, you become the work wife or work husband of your partner. If that person suddenly drops through a hole in the earth, how does that upend your life? What does that look like and how do you deal with that? And how do you deal with your participation in that happening? I just thought, that’s a great story, you know? That's really interesting, and I want to get into that and poke around.

You went exactly where I was going to go, in the sense that, ostensibly, the propelling action here is Mitch’s sexual misconduct, but when you get into the story, it really centers around the consequences for Alex because she's a woman who has partnered with this guy. That’s really the second crime, if you will, and the more important part of this story.

Yes, for me it was. It was the thing that drew me in. Then also, the idea of putting into that scenario this really dysfunctional workplace, that had love in it, had beautiful things in it but had a deep dysfunction. But throwing this total, innocent, naive hothead [Bradley Jackson, played by Reese Witherspoon] into it was a really fun idea also and added the ingredients I wanted to write about because she doesn’t know this bullshit decorum.

How quickly did the story come together with all the people that were already involved in the project?

Quickly. Everything had to. There was no time to really dither. Once I knew I had something that would work, I would push it forward. I wouldn't think about it too much because that was just the name of the game on this one.

And this was a really tricky one because there were a lot of voices. It’s a new network, new studio, huge stars, huge budget, it’s all that stuff. But in a way it was good to just shut that all out and... It’s like you're following the scent of story and just going, “This is the right way to go. Go this way, go this way, go this way” and don't think about the rest of it.

How did you navigate the many potential perils of all these different personalities and egos involved here? Was that difficult?

That’s a really good question. It was difficult in that, in a basic part of me, I’m a caretaker. So I want to make sure people are engaged in a good way and are happy with the process and all that. But on this particular show, I couldn’t. I had to go into it with an attitude like, I got to do what I think is the right thing, and if I get fired, I get fired. Because it wasn’t a situation you could corral. You know what I’m saying?

You had to lead.

Yeah. I just had to keep thinking about the fictional reality and know when I was right and just keep moving forward. If we had issues or disagreements we would obviously work through them, but from a very early stage, everyone got that we were doing something interesting and really got on board.

We worked things out pretty well. But running shows, there are plenty of times when you go home and you cry because you’re just exhausted. It’s a lot. You are always on, you’re always putting out.

It certainly sounds like a heavyweight gauntlet, so my hat’s off, even more than usual, for navigating this.

Thank you, I appreciate that. It is. But in a way, the fact that it was such a Herculean task kind of made it okay to fail, if that makes sense. Because it’s like, I’m trying to do something that’s basically a little impossible. So I’m just going to fucking run in there, I’m going run in front of the train. I'm going to try to get to the other side, and I think I can do this. And if I don't, I get hit by the train.

Has the COVID pandemic had any effect on story lines you’ve already broken or anything you’re going to do in season two?

No. That's a slippery slope and certainly has been thought about. I could have a longer conversation with you about that in six months.

I’m not really ready to go there yet. I personally think it’s premature to start thinking about that. It’s dangerous in certain respects because we don’t know how all this was going to turn out. And I don’t just mean from a story perspective. I mean, we don’t know how tragic this is all going to be yet.

Yeah. How can you write about it?

It’s pretty tragic so far. In a year from now, are people going to want to be seeing anything about it? Or are they going to want to run as fast as they can toward anything else? So I understand the instinct to want to do it, but I don’t know that I agree with that.

On the flip side, do you have any concerns that the pandemic will affect how the story lines you already have will play with viewers?

We’re on the other side of a river now, and we’re looking back across the river, and I get that. This is a huge event. But at the end of the day, you really have to be true to characters and the stories you are telling about characters, because everything else is kind of bullshit. To suddenly uproot a story that you’re telling that is about a certain thing and about characters experiencing that thing—this is just me—but I feel like you have to be true to the truth and the reality that you set up.

That’s me. But who knows? Everybody is thinking through this right now, I promise you, at every show.

Removing COVID for a moment, just as a writer, do characters lead you through your writing of a narrative?

Yes, one thousand percent. Stories, to me, are about—you need some incident—but they're mostly about how the characters perceive those incidents based on their own weird psychology and needs.

In the series’ first episode, there’s a great monologue Billy Crudup delivers where he says, people “don't fucking want journalism, they want entertainment.” That monologue announces another large theme of the show: the soul of journalism and it’s future. Can you tell me anything about that theme’s role in season two?

Well, that is a huge theme in season two—what is news evolving to? What is going to become important in journalism? I can't say too much, but that is a huge theme of the second season.

That’s certainly a rich vein right there.

Yeah, it really is, because it’s rapidly evolving and so complicated, so many things happening at once in terms of how it is surviving and being labeled. And there are so many different versions of what news is. Of course, the phone has changed a lot of that and obviously the political situation has changed a lot of that too.

I read in an L.A. Times profile that you started writing when you were very young, that you wrote a play and brought it to your third-grade teacher.

Yes.

I happen to be the father of a third-grade girl who loves to write stories. How important were your parents in either inspiring or not getting in the way of that interest? Did you run into any gender-based resistance to you writing as a kid?

I probably didn’t as a kid. I was a pretty outgoing kid, especially through eighth grade. Hormones change you. But I was pretty confident and outgoing. I loved theater. I don’t know why because my parents didn’t take me to any plays. I don’t know where I came up with this. My dad was an actor, he used to do plays.

But I didn't ever see him do them. He wasn't doing them when he was my dad. So I don’t know where it came from exactly, and it was just a different time. Your parents weren’t as engaged in your every day, every moment, every hour life the way we are in our kids’ lives. So it was an enterprise that me and my sister did.

A fun way to pass the time and play?

It was very amusing to us, yeah. It felt very rewarding. It just felt like we were doing something good and fun, you know?

But if your daughter’s writing now, she’s probably is going to be a writer. If you have that instinct, it's unique and it is a calling.

Like, why do you see the world in stories and why do you have this instinct to study behavior, or society and put that in front of society? What a weird instinct that is.

Right. And you came up as an adult in a time very much pre #MeToo.

Yeah, very much.

I assume you dealt with a fair amount of…

When I really look back, I’m sure I did, although I didn't feel like it at the time. But the world was so different. It’s like living in pre-war Berlin, and you don’t really know it’s different until you have something to compare it to.

So, to me, you just navigate the world the way it is, and that’s the way the world was. You learn how to navigate it. I look at it differently now. I look at things that happened to friends of mine or just the way people talked—it was very different, the attitude about women, what women were capable of, putting women in charge of things. Huge, huge, huge differences.

Didn’t you feel more alone or rare at the beginning of your career?

Yes. I did feel there were not a lot of women. We were a small group. But that started to change pretty rapidly, once the 2000s happened. So it got pretty normal to have half-and-half rooms.

Do you have any idiosyncratic rituals for writing? How do you do it?

I do keep a schedule. I like to write in the morning to the early afternoon. It’s when I get the most done. I work in my bedroom. I've never had an office. I did my homework on my bed when I was growing up, and I wrote on my bed most of my life. I just recently got a chair and ottoman that I now write in. But I don’t have an office—they don't appeal to me. I don't know why.

Other than that I would say, there’s a time when you’re writing stuff down on paper, but you’re always working. You always have a problem in your head you’re trying to figure out. Or something will come in that inspires you, and you go down that road in your head. That happens constantly, 24/7. That’s just the life. It’s like, you're always working.

© 2020 Writers Guild of America West

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